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The West needs to prepare for a major cyber attack from Russia in retaliation for the severe sanctions it has imposed, a former US Under Secretary of Defence has said.
Michele Flournoy also warned that with Nato war planes patrolling Eastern Europe’s borders there is potential for an “accident or incident and that can lead to miscalculation and escalation” between nuclear powers.
There are also growing concerns that Russia might strike at lorry convoys carrying weapons from Nato into Ukraine, further intensifying the crisis, the Chatham House webinar heard.
Western strategists are worried that tensions could lead to a nuclear strike especially given Russia’s “doctrine of escalating,” Ms Flournoy said.
But it was thought much more likely that President Vladimir Putin would use his significant cyber warfare firepower to strike back at wide-ranging western sanctions which have seen banks, companies and individuals targeted.
“If Putin’s going to use his traditional playbook and as the sanctions bite we can expect him to launch major cyber attacks against the US and Nato countries,” she told the London-based think tank.
President Joe Biden’s administration was showing “discipline and the restraint” to ensure the conflict “doesn't trigger a broader European war with Nato and Russia directly in conflict”, but that could quickly change with a Russian attack.
The former politician, who is chairwoman of the Centre for a New American Security, said the war could spill into the alliance’s territory.
“There's the continued risk of escalation if Putin gets increasingly frustrated with western and Nato efforts to arm the Ukrainians, the Russians will try to hit convoys coming across the border and potentially miscalculate, hitting them inside Nato territory.”
With Nato’s air policing operations close to the border and with the Russian air force possibly moving into western Ukraine “you could have real potential for some kind of accident or incident” that could lead to a major escalation.
This could create a “Nato dimension to the conflict” and with it the risk of a nuclear war.
Putin had put “the nuclear threat on the table” and while it was “more bluster at this point than not … the nuclear shadow is always going to be there when we're talking about Russia given its doctrine of escalating.”
With sanctions beginning to bite across all Russia society there are suggestions from some analysts that an attempt might be made to remove Mr Putin from office.
But the former Pentagon official, who was in charge of defence policy under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2012, said there was “a very remote chance that Putin loses his power in this scenario, but it's not impossible”.
Historically it has been a combination of “popular discontent and elite discontent” that had brought down autocrats, she argued. “But it's not impossible, particularly if he continues to double down on a strategy that neither his oligarchs nor the people really support. And they will continue to experience increasing pain.”
She said conversations with Washington insiders had informed her that the US government was trying “to wrestle with how could they hasten the point of stalemate. How could they set the table for a more productive negotiation than what they've had so far.”